In 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Saul is among a group of prisoners who have been able to survive a bit longer by taking on the horrific clean-up work of those concentration camps. They dispose of the bodies and the belongings of the dead; they encounter death at every turn. Hungarian director László Nemes won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for this, his debut feature film.
In the course of his work, Saul encounters the body of a boy he identifies as his son, and he determines to give him a proper Jewish burial, as impossible as that may be. Meanwhile, his fellow prisoners are organizing an uprising, and they are trying to get him to take part. Saul is masterfully portrayed by actor Géza Röhrig, who creates a character who is both sympathetic and possibly foolhardy as he embarks on his mission.
While there have been many profoundly affecting movies about the trauma and dehumanization experienced by concentration camp prisoners, Son of Saul brings you behind the gates of Auschwitz in a completely different way. The camera is either looking over Saul’s shoulder, as if you are keeping step right behind him, or it is directly in his face. There is no safe place to turn, but at the same time, most of the atrocities are only in your peripheral vision. Saul and the others mostly try not to look, not to think, not to feel.
Viewers get to experience the confusion of camp life and the strange bureaucracy of the Nazis juxtaposed with the constant uncertainty of what might happen next. You can still only guess at the physical pain, hunger, and smell that the characters are experiencing. In the middle of the inhumanity, Saul is reaching for something human.
This is not a feel-good movie, and viewers should be prepared for some disturbing visuals and themes. However, Nemes offers a powerful perspective on what our recent history can tell us about the depths of suffering human beings are willing to inflict on each other in the worst of times. Telling the story with such painful honesty is one of the ways we can hope to prevent such horrors in the future. On disc now. (Sony)